Aaron Tanaka: Co-founder, Boston Worker’s Alliance

SCN: What is the Boston Worker’s Alliance?

AT: It’s an organization based in Grove Hall in the Roxbury/Dorchester area. The BWA is a grassroots community organization lead by underemployed and unemployed workers, and people with barriers to their employment. The co-founder is city councilor Chuck Turner and the District 7 Advisory Board, which are veteran community organizers. BWA was founded in 2005.

SCN: Could you describe how your work is influenced by the civil rights activism of Dr. Martin Luther King?

AT: Yes, he does inspire me. The work of Martin Luther King provides a lot of influence for our organization and my own personal philosophy. Things he did later on in his life, right before he was assassinated, are especially relevant to my work, such as the national Poor People’s Campaign. King had just begun moving from racial justice to economic justice. He was trying to push a national campaign to generate jobs and income for everyone in the country. He believed that everyone had the right to work in dignity.

SCN: Describe the function of the Boston Worker’s Alliance.

AT: The Boston Worker’s Alliance is mostly led by low-income people of color. Many members of our organization have a criminal record, which is a significant barrier to employment. One of our recent successes was passing CORI (Criminal Offender Record Information) reform after a 5-year campaign. Reforming CORI goes back to civil rights efforts. The modern criminal justice system has basically become the new Jim Crow.

SCN: Because of the way prisoners are “employed” in the for-profit prison system?

AT: There are two main reasons. First of all, the criminal justice system is disproportionately full of people of color. The second reason is economics. An entire industry has been built on the practically free labor of prisoners for private prison profits. In the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, when they abolished slavery, the one thing that was exempt was “involuntary servitude as punishment for a crime.”

SCN: Anything our readers should know about the Boston Worker’s Alliance?

AT: The organization needs support from the community via volunteers and allies. We’re in Boston for the purpose of supporting low-income families, and people are welcome to join us. After eight years, I just stepped down from being executive director, but there’s new director in place and the organization has many plans for the future. I’m now running a small foundation that supports community organizing in Boston.

—Alison Clark

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